The Redskins' Rich Milot is thought to be the only middle linebacker in the National Football League who regularly makes his living defending only against passing attacks.
And Washington coaches believe Milot has performed above average in his well-defined role -- especially for someone who hadn't played a down as a middle linebacker until the season began.
The rapidly developing Milot has had three sacks the last two weeks, against St. Louis and New Orleans. Last week he intercepted two of Archie Manning's passes and led the Redskins in tackles, with seven, despite playing only in passing situations.
"Rich Milot has had two real fine games in a row," Coach Jack Pardee said yesterday after a crisp three-hour practice. "He's maturing into an exceptional pass defender and now he's playing with more confidence every week."
Milot's ability to defense the run had worried Redskin coaches ever since he was selected in the seventh round of the 1979 college draft and was converted from defensive back to linebacker.
Milot started at right linebacker (the first rookie to start a Redskin season opener since Bill Brundige in 1970) until he broke his wrist in the seventh game last season.
When Neal Olkewicz was injured before the start of this season, Milot was moved to middle linebacker and received a brutal baptism against the rushing games of Dallas, Oakland and Seattle.
"It wasn't his fault," Pardee said. "Rich simply wasn't trained at the middle linebacker spot."
"I really don't think I played that badly," Milot said in retrospect, "even though I did receive a lot of criticism."
Milot has been receiving little or no criticism lately. Pardee has found that the combination of Olkewicz (again healthy) defending againt the run and Milot against the pass is at least adequate. But Milot, 6 feet 4, 230 pounds and very rangy and long legged, says he is finally getting used to the position.
"Going from outside to middle linebacker is the most difficult adjustment I've ever had to make. I knew I could play the pass, but the run was a little confusing to me," said Milot, who played cornerback and free safety in his last two years at Penn State after starting his college career as a tailback.
"With that experience in the backfield," Milot added, "I knew something of what to expect in the way of pass routes from backs."
"But on the rush, I think I was trying to read the offense too much. A middle linebacker has to be able to use his defensive line in much the same way a back does the offensive line. But I wasn't always conscious of where our front line was going on running plays.
"Plus, I was used to the outside linebacking spot where backs can only run at you from one direction, basically. But when you're in the middle, they can come at you from all sort of angles and I was having trouble reacting. Now I'm reacting more than thinking and as a result, I'm just starting to feel comfortable at the position. I've felt the improvement since the Eagle game."
Milot usually enters the game to replace Olkewicz on second and long yardage, or third down and more than three yards to go for a first. His primary responsibility is to cover the backs coming out for passes, hanging around the first-down marker. Both of Milot's interceptions came while covering speedy New Orleans halfback Jimmy Rogers.
"Each time, they were attempting to throw passes to him way out in the flat," Milot said. "Maybe they were a little surprised by my speed. I hope other teams are, too, and maybe I can have the same results for the next few games."
Linebacker Coach George Dickson says Milot is playing with more assurance than he was earlier this season.
"Rich is going to be a valuable commodity in this league," the veteran coach said. "You've got to remember that this kid went to Penn State as a tailback and has never played the same position two years in a row. That in itself makes it harder to master one position.
"But in a sense, it makes him a more knowledgeable football player than the guy who has played only one position all his life. He's very flexible and that's what has helped account for his improvement. I don't see too many, if any guys around the league coming into situations like Rich does on passing downs for our defense."
Milot knows he may be on the field 70 percent of the game Sunday against Minnesota and quarterback Tommy Kramer, who uses his passing attack like some teams use their rushing game -- to set the tempo. Milot will be expected to cover Ricky Young and Ted Brown. That will be a good measure of how far he has progressed this season.
"Brown's the best back I played against in college and Neal (Olkewicz) would probably say the same thing," Milot said. "I look at this as clearly a challenge."
Viking quarterback Tommy Kramer did not practice yesterday because of a jammed thumb and dislocated ring finger on his right throwing hand. Team officials said they won't know until later this week, possibly only minutes before game time, if Kramer will start . . . Pardee said he won't know any more on the condition of injured guard Jeff Williams, still hospitialized, until this afternoon. Fred Dean and Dan Nugent are practicing in his place . . . Joe Lavender pulled up with a sore knee yesterday but Pardee insisted it is "nothing torn or bruised."